We were able to dock at the port in Bluff, New Zealand around midnight on February, 13. The seas were rough and it was raining but we were greeted by a pilot boat. Amazingly they pulled up next to us and the pilot hopped on board! He guided the Orion into port and we docked safely.
We've spent our first week in New Zealand preparing for and doing the Milford Track. Here is a link to a map showing the route:
It is touted as the "finest walk in the world". Time will tell if it lives up to it's reputation. The trek starts with a one hour boat ride from Te Anau Downs across Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf where we disembarked with our fellow trekkers, trampers as we are called in New Zealand.
There are two ways to do this trek. The first, is to do the walk independently staying in huts with shared bunk rooms, kitchen/dining rooms and bathrooms. You have to carry your own stuff, clothes, sleeping bag, food, cooking pot and eating utensils. The second way is to go on a guided walk. You stay in lodges with private rooms/bathrooms, have gourmet meals cooked for you and carry only a daypack. Guess which method we chose? Wrong, we opted to go as independent walkers. Truth be told, if I knew about the guided option we may have gone that route.
The first day on the trail is an easy one. It's a short 3 mile walk along the Clinton River to Clinton Hut. We took our time enjoying the beautiful beech forest draped in moss and lichen. There are 90+ species of ferns that thrive in these lush forests. Many grow along the forest floor, others are epiphytic growing on trees. Friendly robins flitted around us and paradise ducks swam along the emerald waters of the Clinton River. The weather had cleared nicely and we had great views of the surrounding mountains.
The hut ranger took us on a walk later that afternoon and pointed out some of the trees and ferns growing nearby. Back at the hut, it a free-for-all for dinner. Forty people scramble to cook dinner on a dozen gas burners.
Fortunately, we had to boil water for a freeze-dried dinner. A Korean family was cooking up a feast complete with fresh meat. After dinner we were shown some glow worms living nearby. In the darkness, they resemble a mini starlit sky enticing moths and other insects into their silky threads. Finally the moment I dreaded - bedtime. I had the top bunk and climbed up for a fitful night's sleep. Wrong! I dozed off only to awaken to a chorus of snoring. One guy sounded like a jackhammer. How can anyone sleep through such a racket? I left my earplugs down below so stuck my head in my sleeping bag and swore myself to sleep
The sun was shining brightly on day two of the trek. I survived the night and was ready for the 10 mile hike to Mintaro Hut. We climbed gradually along the Clinton River with views of towering granite cliffs on either side. We took a side trip to Prairie Lake and I spotted 6 long black necks in the grass. "What rare flightless New Zealand birds could they be?" I wondered. They shot up and landed in the lake in front of us. To my amazement they turned out to be Canada Geese!
We arrived at Mintaro Hut around 1:45 and I rushed in to select the best bunks. There were two bunk rooms downstairs that sleep only eight so I grabbed two lower bunks in one of the rooms. We had lunch and looked toward Mackinnon Pass our objective for the next day. The weather forecast wasn't looking so great for tomorrow and it was so clear today that we thought about climbing the pass today. Delf, a fellow trekker from Germany was thinking the same thing. He convinced us to go. It was only a 1500 foot climb and another 6 miles round trip but, without a pack. A helicopter was flying back and forth ferrying supplies or so we thought. As we rounded a switchback, there were big white sacks of gravel.
The helicopter was dropping gravel on the trail for maintenance! "Shit!" I thought. They weren't expecting anyone to be climbing Mackinnon Pass now. All we needed was for a half ton sack of gravel to come crashing through the trees onto our heads! No need to fear, there were two Department of Conservation workers on the trail with a radio directing placement of the sacks.
We climbed around the sacks and eventually above tree line. The vegetation became alpine and we noted Mt. Cook Lilly's, the largest buttercup in the world (unfortunately not in bloom) growing along the trail. I could see a large stone cairn with a cross, marking the pass or so I thought. It turned out to be a memorial to explorer Quintin McKinnon.
Strait ahead a path led to the edge of the cliff and a 3000 foot drop! The trail appeared to continue off to the right up and over another bump. Far enough for us. The views from this point were spectacular.
Delf returned from the pass to join us. He informed us that the true pass was another 15-20 minutes away. We told him we had gone far enough. He perched himself on a rock on the edge of the cliff
After a rest and a snack we decided to make the climb to the top of the pass and for a view of the Clinton Valley.
We returned to Mintaro Hut happy that we had made it to the top of Mackinnon Pass in such great weather. Hurray, little to no snoring tonight! We picked the right bunk room. The couple in the bunks above us were restless and their tossing and turning still managed to keep me awake.
As we feared clouds had rolled in over night and the pass was socked in. We made our second accent in blowing wind and drizzle. Needless to say there was no view from the pass.
We had made the right call yesterday. We stopped in the McKinnon Pass Shelter to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate before making the long 3000 foot decent to our third and final hut, Dumpling. We passed the turnoff to Sutherland Falls, the highest in New Zealand but the trail was closed. A recent rockfall has forced the trail to be re-routed and it won't be complete until next year. We had a nice view further down the trail.
Our fourth and final day of trampling arrived early. The Korean family was up at 5:00 so they could get an early start. They were afraid of missing the 2:00 ferry at the end of the trek. We had eleven and a half miles to go today. It was supposed to be mainly flat but any little incline felt like a hill to me. I was tired from yesterday and my knees hurt. The trail passed through forest along the Arthur River to a historic boat shed. We finally arrived at MacKay Falls and Bell Rock and I crawled under bell rock for a quick look. The roof was somewhat shaped like a bell. The trail continued on past the Arthur River and Lake Ada and climbed to where a cliff had been cut and blasted away by contracted laborers in the late 1800's. They had carved their names in the wall.
We were moving slow today. I really wanted to stop for a break. My feet and knees were killing me. It was difficult to enjoy the beauty along the trail when you're in agony.
I held out until the Giant Gate Falls where we broke for lunch. A Weka, one of New Zealand's flightless birds that has survived the onslaught of introduced predators, crossed the trail to check out someone's pack laying on the ground.
The Falls were pretty but not spectacular. The last 2 miles of the trail were constructed by a prison labor gang from 1890 to 1892. Finally we arrived at the end of the track at Sandfly Point!
We had done it, trekked 40 miles with backpacks in three and a half days! It was around 1:35, plenty of time to catch the 2:00 ferry. Given the great weather affording spectacular views and the amazing flora, I would have to agree, the Milford Track is one of the "finest walks in the world"!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc